There was a time in U.S. history when the national government was broke and impotent, unable to pay the country’s debts or to raise the money to do so. The government’s inability to function threatened the very idea of a “United States,” and so a few of the country’s leaders retreated to Philadelphia to fix the system. Instead, they scrapped the system entirely and started over with a new government, one given unlimited powers of taxation and designed to actually get stuff done.
The reason the current Constitution exists, in other words, is because the Founders were faced with a choice: Go broke, or go forward.
“A nation cannot long exist without revenues,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, explaining why the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced by the new Constitution. “Destitute of this essential support, it must resign its independence, and sink into the degraded condition of a province.”
This bit of history naturally raises a question for our current age: Is it time to scrap the Constitution and start over?
We’re not quite there yet—thanks to Tuesday night’s “fiscal cliff” deal that raises taxes on the wealthy and delays hard spending decisions for two more months—but we keep getting closer and closer to that edge. If (as our history suggests) the reason to tear down an old government and start anew is that it cannot perform the simple tasks of keeping the government in business, then it’s nearly time to do so.
Consider, in the last 18 months:
- The “debt ceiling” fight went on so long that credit-rating services downgraded the federal government’s rating–a strong sign those services were losing confidence in America’s politicians to do their jobs.
- Tuesday’s fiscal cliff deal emerged at the last moment, despite the fact that no one—not Democrats, not Republicans—wanted taxes to rise on everybody, a certainty had the legislation not been passed. Even when they agree with each other, in other words, the two parties can barely get a deal done.
- At some point in the next few months, the government will have to once again take up both the debt ceiling and spending decisions. If recent history is any guide, no decision or deal will be reached until the last possible moment—and possibly not even until well after that. Negotiations keep running us up to the edge of the cliff; at this rate, doesn’t it seem likely that they’ll soon hurtle over the side?
And if that happens—if the feds can no longer manage the simple task of making a budget and meeting it, and if their refusal to do so makes the country a poorer, scarier, less safe place for the rest of us—well, we don’t have to put up with it. We can and should start over.
Smart observers will point out that Republicans and Democrats would be at each other’s throats no matter what system they serve under. True. But the Constitution was built with the understanding that there would be tough debates; it was designed to let the government take action, though, rather than sink into paralysis. And it didn’t do a bad job: It’s lasted more than 200 years, after all.
So the creators of a new government should act in a smiliar, problem-solving spirit. A new American government would probably be more parliamentary in nature–looking like the government of the United Kingdom or Israel–than the current form. There’d probably be just a single legislative house–just Congress, instead of both a House of Representatives and Senate–in which a majority party would exercise firm and clear authority. It would be easier to get laws and budgets passed; it would also be easier to get bad laws and budgets passed, admittedly.
But the lines of responsibility would be clear. Right now, Republicans and Democrats refuse to cooperate with each other, instead hoping the other guy will get the blame for mucked-up processes. A parliamentary system, by putting all the power in the hands of the majority party, would make it harder to hide behind pointing fingers.
All of thise sounds ludicrous, admittedly. We’ve lived as a people under the U.S. Constitution for moe than 200 years. Something that has been around forever often feels like it will be around forever.
In the end, however, we have the right to expect that government will work. When it doesn’t it’s time to start over. Just like the Founders did.